One of the early reviews of Akira Kurosawa's "Ran" said that he could not possibly have directed it at an earlier age. My first impulse was to question that act of critical omnipotence. Who is to say Kurosawa couldn't have made this film at 50 or 60, instead of at 75, as he has?
But then I thought longer about "Ran," which is based on Shakespeare's "King Lear" and on a similar medieval samurai legend. And I thought about Laurence Oliver's "Lear" on TV last year, and about the "Lear" I saw starring Douglas Campbell a few weeks ago here in Chicago, and I realized that age probably is a prerequisite to fully understand this character. Dustin Hoffman might be able to play Willy Loman by aging himself with makeup, but he will have to wait another 20 years to play Lear.
The character contains great paradoxes, but they are not the paradoxes of youth; they spring from long habit. Lear has the arrogance of great power, long held. He has wide knowledge of the world. Yet he is curiously innocent when it comes to his own children; he thinks they can do no wrong, can be trusted to carry out his plans. At the end, when his dreams have been broken, the character has the touching quality of a childlike innocence that can see breath on lips that are forever sealed, and can dream of an existence beyond the cruelties of man. Playing Lear is not a technical exercise. I wonder if a man can do it who has not had great disappointments and long dark nights of the soul.
Kurosawa has lived through those bad times. Here is one of the greatest directors of all time, out of fashion in his own country, suffering from depression, nearly blind. He prepared this film for 10 years, drawing hundreds of sketches showing every shot, hardly expecting that the money ever would be found to allow him to make the film. But a deal was finally put together by Serge Silberman, the old French producer who backed the later films of Luis Bunuel (who also could have given us a distinctive Lear). Silberman risked his own money; this is the most expensive Japanese film ever made, a nd, yes, perhaps Kurosawa could not have made it until he was 75.
The story is familiar. An old lord decides to retire from daily control of his kingdom, yet still keep all the trappings of his power. He will divide his kingdom in three parts among his children. In "Ran" they are sons, not daughters. First, he requires a ritual statement of love. The youngest son cannot abide the hypocrisy, and stays silent. And so on. The Japanese legend Kurosawa draws upon contains a famous illustration in which the old lord takes three arrows and demonstrates that when they are bundled, they cannot be broken, but taken one at a time, they are weak. He wishes his sons to remain allies, so they will be strong, but of course they begin to fight, and civil war breaks out as the old lord begins his forlorn journey from one castle to another, gradually being stripped of his soldiers, his pride, his sanity. Nobody can film an epic battle scene like Kurosawa. He already has demonstrated that abundantly in "The Seven Samurai," in "Yojimbo," in "Kagemusha." In "Ran," the great bloody battles are counterpointed with scenes of a chamber quality, as deep hatreds and lusts are seen to grow behind the castle walls.
"King Lear" is a play that centers obsessively around words expressing negatives. "Nothing? Nothing will come to nothing!" "Never, never, never." "No, no, no, no, no." They express in deep anguish the king's realization that what has been taken apart never will be put together again, that his beloved child is dead and will breathe no more, that his pride and folly have put an end to his happiness. Kurosawa's film expresses that despair perhaps more deeply than a Western film might; the samurai costumes, the makeup inspired by Noh drama, give the story a freshness that removes it from all our earlier associations.
"Ran" is a great, glorious achievement. Kurosawa often must have associated himself with the old lord as he tried to put this film together, but in the end he has triumphed, and the image I have of him, at 75, is of three arrows bundled together.